Garden Time and Identity

We have four days left to raise some 3,000 plus for our campaign.  Over 600 people viewed this blog yesterday.  If only 180 had made a contribution to our Campaign of 18$ or more, the Campaign would have been an overnight success…We need you—Now.  Please contribute 18 or more today:

Climate change is real.  While we are still on land we need to figure out how to use this warm spell this year to our advantage.  You might just get eight months of reasonably warm or frost-free temperatures if you are not living in those coastal extremities that favor 8-12 months per year of growing time.

A Spring Meal–Lumper Potatoes Included

A lot of you have written to me concerning healthier eating and heirloom vegetable gardening, etc.  Let me say this first–in the African, African Diaspora and African American cultural traditions have long embraced the kitchen garden as an essential piece of daily life.  Don’t let the new crop of food advocates and activists fool you–this is a tradition that our Ancestors established, cultivated and fought for…Before anyone ever heard of a Victory Garden we had our truck and huck patches, which served as a means of cultural, economic and social power in the slave quarter through the age of the Freedmen and segregation.  While Europeans had their kitchen garden tradition, it is unique that enslaved Africans expected and promoted the idea that they were in fact “owed,” garden space to cultivate their own food.  In West Africa, enslaved and indentured persons had that right and it is likely that in the Americas, this was insisted upon by those who found themselves in exile.  Slavery was always colloquial and discretionary—gardens provided a means of self-reliance that cut down on the overhead costs of large planters to feed their workforce and reinforced–perhaps always subconsciously–African dietary traditions, African dietary adaptations and the establishment of Afri-Creole landscapes in the Caribbean, South America, and the Southern United States and eastern seaboard.  Our ancestors did not see gardens as a “dainty,” or a “hobby,” they were utilitarian and symbolic of their presence on the land.  I repeat–don’t let people fool you–we don’t need to be taught anything about the power of our traditional gardening culture–we just need to remember where we came from in order to facilitate the journey to where we need to be.

While the thrust of this post is about creating a garden that will help you “eat to live,” it goes without saying that we have lost a lot in the African American, West Indian and African Immigrant communities that could benefit their development and growth.  I encourage all of my readers who are of African descent to study gardening, get into a Master Gardener program, learn about urban farming and see if there are any local programs to facilitate that process or even establishing urban farms; and if you are still on land in the Deep South–DO NOT SELL ONE INCH OF GROUND–KEEP IT, IMPROVE IT THROUGH ORGANIC MEANS AND GROW OUR HEIRLOOMS AND RAISE OUR HERITAGE BREEDS.

Why so stern?  If you want sparkling wine, you can get sparkling wine.  If you want a salt and air cured meat product, you can get that.  But if you want to champagne, you have to go to people from a certain locale with a specific terroir in France to obtain the real deal.  If you want proscuitto or Spanish jamon Serrano,  there are specific places and sources from which the real deal is obtained.  Why is this not the case with plants familiar to the African American, African Immigrant and West Indian communities?  You would not believe how many of our distinctive crops and foods are “outsourced,” and are losing ground as products and productions of our community.  It’s an outrage for which we have only ourselves to blame.  Other ethnic communities take great pride in the monopoly and artisan production of their unique foods.  Once upon a time we did too.  We were “chicken merchants” of the Chesapeake; we were the Haitian emigrees who took over produce markets and established catering businesses, we are women who bought their husband’s freedom with tomatoes, we are the produce makers in central Virginia who bought gunpowder, lead shot and padlocks with their greens, cucumbers and cottton.  We are all those specific historical examples of ways Black women and men of old took the matter of self-preservation and self-determination into their own hands and used the earth they were bound to as a means to make way for freedom.

Don’t get me wrong–I am not a purist for “cultural ownership,” I’m just saying that anybody CAN make anything they like, but the descendants and heirs of a tradition should take the kind of pride and initiative to reintroduce and market those traditions so they can be culturally and environmentally sustainable.  The women of the Lowcountry have certainly done this with grass baskets from Charleston to Savannah.  Their children are partnering with state and local organizations interested in replanting sweetgrass and saving it from extinction while preserving a craft unique to the Gullah-Geechee nation.  Look no further than the Native American fishery projects from the Northwest to California to Virginia with its shad restoration.  In an age where Food People will pay top dollar for quality food—it is critical that we stay in the game and become our own best customers as we strive to find new ways to put our community back to work and our historic culture back to use.  Not only do we need to grow these crops, raise these animals and fish and have an informed stewardship of unique wild foods, but we need to encourage a broad and informed understanding of what our community can offer others in the marketplace of American food ingredients and ideas.  This is a call to action…So the first action is to grow what you can.

Gardening and Urban Farming:

  • puts our people back in touch with nature
  • gives us good exercise
  • teaches delayed gratification to our young people
  • encourages patient, loving and unconditional inter-generational learning between age groups, most saliently–the elderly and the middle and high school aged youth.
  • gives us access to our own self-provided part of the food supply
  • gives us stewardship over treasured cultural heirlooms, herbs and ingredients we need to define our historic and contemporary role in influencing American and global food culture.  EMPOWERMENT EMPOWERMENT EMPOWERMENT.
  • Connects us with our Ancestors.
  • Gives a fuller and better life to those who work and eat in concert with the seasons, absorb nature’s natural blessings and can eat in sustainable ways that are good for the balance of nature.

Forget the free range Ossabaw hogs, today we are hear to all about what plants will keep you and your families and friends who want to live well, alive:

Here’s the shopping list for seeds–tomorrow we talk health benefits:

  1. Collards
  2. Broccoli
  3. Sweet Potatoes
  4. Green Pepper
  5. Cowpeas
  6. Summer and Winter Squash
  7. Garlic and Onions
  8. Carrots
  9. Spinach
  10. Dandelion Greens
  11. Kale
  12. Mustard Greens
  13. Snap Beans
  14. Potatoes  (in moderation)
  15. Red Pepper
  16. Parsley, Thyme, Sage, Rosemary, Mint, Oregano, Marjoram (all have medicinal qualities)
  17. Cabbage
  18. Okra
  19. Peanuts
  20. Tomatoes
  21. Swiss Chard

Buying SOME of the perk seeds for the Cooking Gene Project 🙂


Are You Really What You Eat? Or are You the Meals that You Cook?


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“Over Yonder”

Cooking at the Greenmarket
We have four days left to raise some 3,000 plus for our campaign.  Over 600 people viewed this blog yesterday.  If only 180 had made a contribution to our Campaign of 18$ or more, the Campaign would have been an overnight success…We need you—Now.  Please contribute 18 or more today:

When I first started entertaining the idea that I would devote time and energy to food writing, as opposed to just eating and talking about food; I tried my hand at peeling the Big Apple for its culinary secrets.  I kept finding myself out of the loop.  Everywhere I looked seemed to be passe, hackneyed, old, brand new, out of the moment, in the moment….I felt two hours too late or ten years behind.  The gastronomic capital of the world felt like a poisoned feast where things were always passed due—but beloved, or just being born and distrusted or embraced with an intensely passionate novelty-love….all on a grid I never really seemed to be able to navigate.  I spent a day each month for 8 months demonstrating recipes for the greenmarket at Union Square, I chatted up vendors, bought heirloom tomatoes from Tim Stark, apples from Upstate, fingerlings from Joe–whose last name I still don’t know–but whose earth-stained hands showed me I could trust every word he said about his potatoes.  Maple candy, some fish we Marylanders would never call “striped bass,”  garlic scapes, goat cheese I’m sure I paid way too much money for, a Korean-American farm’s Concord grape and apple punch I always bought a quart of, and O’Henry yams….surely an education but not quite enough

I was always sort of an anomaly there—I wore the kippah–and invariably collected stares and inquiries that unnerved some and drew others in.  Jewish school groups would cluster in and ask, “Ma Nishmah?” or “Is it kosher?”  I could never look up fast enough to see if it was a test/challenge or a genuine verbal hug.  Happy was my soul when a Lubavitcher said Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday!) during Sukkos!  In the most Jewish place on earth outside of Eretz Israel, there I was at the center and the periphery—not unlike the rest of my people….

The African immigrants and Caribbean family were close but a tiny bit far away from where I was “located.”    Many couldn’t get over their shock that an African-American knew where their country was or its capital.  “How you know about that man?”  We talked about sadza, mountain chicken–which is definitely not chicken–, soursop, fufu, alligator pepper, and the bins of niebe–cowpeas from Senegal in Harlem.  Some gave me kinship, others disdain.  To the African-Americans the first question was usually, “Where are your people from?”

My answer was always, “Yonder.”

It was like a code word.  Like “amcho” during World War II in the concentration camps; or “Lundsman” on the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century; a shibboleth that meant, “my roots are down South.”  If they laughed at my response, they got my genealogy al-regel-achat–(on one foot)…if they didn’t I know they couldn’t go very far beyond Bedford-Stuyvestant, Adam Clayton Powell, southside Queens, or Yonkers.  It dawned on me, that it is the unrelenting search for ourselves in others that leads us to find out who we are, as if another’s understanding was a mirror probing deeper than the flesh and tendons and rawness of our meat….

The food told them I was kin.  The food was pointing in the direction where I was, where I belonged, what I was a part of, and what I brought to the table.  My terroir was not the asphalt and parkland, greenspace and rooftop gardens and honeybee laced urban air–it was the fields and farms of the past, the scary scary past–the colonial and antebellum past—with its bayous, backwoods, creeks, swamps, mountainsides, Black Belts, sandy bottomlands and sweeping subtropical valleys.  My terroir was my enslaved past–and the enslaved past of us all.

Guineas—African Birds in the Lowcountry

My plate was haunted.  It had been haunted all along.  I didn’t know where the newest hotspot was at the corner of so and so and such and such.  I didn’t have a clue–and still don’t why being a Chicagoan means eating a hot dog covered in what appears to be salad fixins to an outsider—or why if you don’t fuse your food in LA you are damn near called a segregationist.  Meh….bah….I was eating with my forebears, growing with them, taking advice, living on the cusp of breathing and the permanent silence and cool of the grave.  I was from Yonder, I cooked from a place in my soul called Yonder, and to Yonder I would return.  “Over Yonder,” where my stories lie was where blackberries grew on the hills outside of Birmingham; or the sweet potato field in Lancaster county, SC that got my grandfather and his orphaned siblings through the Depression; the pippins fried in butter and topped off with sorghum molasses in Prince Edward county, VA.  I never tasted any of these–I just heard about them until the people who talked about them died.  I was supposed to be thankful for those edibles–because if they were not, I would not be.

Making 18th Century Bacon

I am a product of the eaters and the eaten.  Co-evolved.  I am Ned the Hog—so much for my Kosher Soul, huh?  I am the critter they call rat-de-bois in the bayou country, you know him as possum.  I am the crawfish that made mud towers in the cities of the dead; and I am the dominiker chickens that faded into the unconscious seeing their world spin like a merry go round.  Over Yonder was where the crowder peas came from that my mother had to shell at my grandfather’s insistence on the step in Cinncinati, and the sugarcane and country melons that made Over Yonder seem like a foreign land–and it was to her and her siblings–they never went Over Yonder, because once my grandmother left Over Yonder, she couldn’t see herself going back to the un-promised Land.

Standing at Stono

In my maternal grandmothers’ day you turned over the plate after Grace to eat.  My haunted plate, turned over , so shined, so polished revealed my face and all the faces that stared into it before me, going back to a face that had never seen a plate like that before.

Virginia/North Carolina/South Carolina/Georgia/Tennessee/Alabama=home

To Be a Slave

I am always surprised how many people “don’t get it.”  Furniture, dishes, wallpaper, plaster moulding, receipt books, gardens laid out in Enlightenment orgasms of symmetry and reason….

Shoot me dammit.  I can appreciate those things….but…….why doesn’t anybody really want to go there–to the log….

When my friend Wisteria Perry worked at Pamplin Historical Park in Petersburg, Virginia; I cried when I saw the log.  Damn, that log beat any table carved from mahogany and chiseled and carved by who the hell ever.  That log was hauled out a tupelo bog.  Some of my people may have served somebody at the fine mahogany table, but their table was the log–and you know what they say in Africa–sit at my table, eat and you will know me.  That beautiful rotten log with the chipped leftover china and cracked gourd.  The gourd that made people think of flying North to freedom and made well water sweet….Somebody has to sit at that log and keep the traditions going–that came from Africa, mixed with Europe and Native America and made the U.S. into Us.

The Log

I cried when I saw the tough for that matter too.  It was from Louisiana and was part of the America I Am exhibit through Tavis Smiley and the National Geographic Society.  That  trough was everywhere from Maryland to Texas, Missouri to Florida.  That trough made Frederick Douglass want to learn to read and run the hell away from slavery.  The civil war began at that trough.

It’s not all about the past you know–its standing in the kitchen of the Lee ancestral home, Stratford Hall and having guests laugh at you when you’ve spilled some water on the hearth….and you can tell its not a nice laugh…You’ve been on your feet for hours, you’ve built the fire, you’re exhausted, you’ve carried 60 pound pots…and you have a table full of things you’ve cooked and you feel embarrassed and the people who are watching you seem remarkably unsympathetic even mocking–as if they—could do this–day after day after day–

Hauling the Pots

Hauling the Pickings

Did they know I could have been whipped if was enslaved in that time for a mistake like that?  Taught a lesson?  This horrifies me, this “Over Yonder” place, where you cross rivers and you cross time and all of a sudden things are unfathomable.  A slave was not a job position or a member of a caste.  An enslaved person was property, a possession considered subhuman, a draft animal.

Did they also know that as a cook I could be a real bastard and tell them all to get out?  Rolled eyes, smirks, laughter…Bemusement my tuchus.  Those early Black cooks were not necessarily demanding mammies and faithful eunuch-like uncles as they have been depicted—they were channels of power, gatekeepers in modern corporate-speak—lions of the one room where tempers could flare like the almost everlasting flames in the hearth.   There is so much to be learned from these dynamics—the last one to go was the cook.

Struggling to wake up./Half burned hoecake/day old mush/off to the field/up before dawn/striking the fire/punching down the dough/breakfast ready when Miss is in the kitchen/making the morning meal alongside Miss/breakfast served at a fine table at 7/breakfast taken to the field with Miss/being yelled at for spilling/burning your arm/the day has to go on/nobody cares about your lower back/old mamas cooking over an iron pot under a shelter for the folks in the field/hoecake lady making her mark/going shopping with Miss toting the baskets in the city streets/babies fed at the trough–muddy hands at all/cuts on the hands-nobody cares/mama feeds baby by field nursing with the only food nobody controls but her/baby lying in the grass/lullaby/all the pretty little horses/lunch break in the field/feel full/hold it down/300 pounds a day/sugar house/rice task/priming leaves/stained hands/hemp/wheat/corn/ironworks and salt pork/Adams in the garden picking up leaves/mamas stir the peas and pork/do not ruin the roux/cabbage bubbles for all white and black on this small farm/supper is to be prompt at 2 the Madisons are coming from over yonder–8 hours on an oxcart/fine dinner service/ham and turkey you will never taste or touch/damn you/no tarts/no salamagundi/no quince preserves/no tasso/prepare for supper/catfish stew/hoecake and buttermilk/possum time/spitting/joking/mush again–same as yesterday/leftovers supper/dishes time/stories from Africa/lullabies/hush harbor/fall into bed, work at 4/if the rooster crows you’re already late/always hungry/always wanting/always empty

Good Luck Food for the Soul


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Please keep your eye posted for my essay on the African origins of rice and bean dishes in Rice and Beans by Berg press, 2012! 

We have four days left to raise some 3,000 plus for our campaign.  Over 600 people viewed this blog yesterday.  If only 180 had made a contribution to our Campaign of 18$ or more, the Campaign would have been an overnight success…We need you—Now.  Please contribute 18 or more today:

Black-Eyed Peas


The Manding call them “soso,” and the Wolof call them “nyebe.”  An ancient staple of the diet in Senegambia and its hinterlands, the black-eyed pea grows well in hot, drought-conducive conditions and is a symbol of resilience, mercy, and kindness.  Nyebe are the kind of cooked food one gives as sadaka—righteously given charity—to beggars on the streets of Senegal.  In Maryland, black-eyed peas can be traced back to the mid-18th century, when it was a field crop, and was exported from the Chesapeake region to theWest Indies.  They continue to be seen as a sign of blessing and are paired with greens as good luck food on New Year’s Day.  As a child I remember not only eating black-eyed peas, but putting them in everyone’s wallet or pocketbook so that they would have money for the entire year. Black eyed peas are one of the good-mazal foods we Sephardim eat on Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish new year.  The cowpea is native to West Africa.  It has been grown in the South since at least the 17th and 18th centuries, with archaeological evidence pointing to its cultivation in enslaved communities going back to the mid-18th century.  It was adopted by my Creek/Muskogee ancestors as well and was grown in their towns in the 18th and 19th century.)

Black eyed pea leaves can be eaten!  Sweet potato leaves, okra leaves, are also edible! In West Africa cassava leaves join these as traditional vegetables along with wild and other cultivated greens!

Black eyed peas symbolize the eye of G-d.

Black eyed peas are a food given to the poor to inspire them to survive and thrive.

Black eyed peas are a symbol of fertility.

Black eyed peas are symbol of multiple deities and spiritual force in West Africa.

Black eyed pea in Yoruba is ewa.  Change the tone and its the word for beauty and the word for tradition.  To ingest black eyed peas is to become filled with beauty, and ancestral tradition.

1 pound of dried black eyed peas

a ham hock, a piece of salt pork or bacon, or salt fish (my favorite pot-meat are smoked turkey wings)

1 cup of chopped onion-optional


a crushed fish or cayenne pepper

(a few teaspoons of molasses—optional)

fresh herbs of your choice

Sort your peas, making sure you check for pebbles or bad peas.  Soak the peas for several hours or overnight, or if in a rush, soak them in boiling hot water for 30 minutes before cooking.  Prepare a stock of salt meat and onion and season with salt and a hot pepper. Boil these together for 15 minutes and add the black eyed peas. Add enough water to cover.   If you like you can add some molasses for more flavor, or the fresh herbs.  Cook for and hour and a half.  Pair it with corn pone or rice for semi-hoppin john.


Symbolizing cash, the number of greens you throw in symbolizes the number of friends you will make, and the color green (in leaves and plants) symbolizes vitality, opportunity, happiness, and growth in several West and West Central African cultures.

“Greens,” to a Southerner in the 18th and 19th centuries could mean lamb’s quarters, young poke leaves or wild mustard or it could have been the collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, cabbage, kale, or chard grown in truck patches or kitchen gardens.  Other times, when all else was scarce, it might be dandelion greens, purslane, young oak or hickory leaves or blackberry leaves.

The green season began in the early spring when fresh leaves sprouted on branches and from the ground.  Beets, turnips, mustard, and other spring greens would be planted for a late spring and early summer harvest.  By late summer a second garden was planted with beets, turnips, mustard, collards and cabbage—enough to last through the winter.  How did collards and cabbage and other greens make it through the winter?

George McDaniel, author of Hearth and Home, interviewed McKinley Gantt ofCalvert County,Maryland and got the following answer:

Cabbage was persevered through the winter in “cabbage pens,” an easily made shelter that protected the cabbage from the frost…Gantt remembered how they were made.  His parents first uprooted the cabbage from the garden, dug a shallow trench, and transplanted the cabbage into the trench, covering the roots with dirt.  Close to that was dug another trench, and row after row of cabbage was transplanted to form a square, which was then enclosed by a low fence of wooden rails, “like a hog pen.”  Logs or boards were laid across the rails, and over these were placed thick pine boughs to keep the frost off the cabbage.  “They’d keep all winter.  I don’t care how cold it got, you could go out there and get a head of cabbage.”  (231)

Sometimes greens were boxed in the field with straw and hay and wooden boards.  That way they were likewise protected from the winter frosts and snow.

Greens were typically flavored with salt pork or middling meat as they cooked down.  Again, the salty protein rations were not generally consumed on their own, but used as a flavoring and relish for other foods that enslaved people grew or acquired for themselves.  The resultant “pot liquor” or “pot likker,” was a very important and nutritious part of the dish.  Leonard Black, a fugitive from Maryland slavery and author of an emancipatory narrative wrote:

I was not allowed to sit down while I ate my meals. For my breakfast I had a pint of pot liquor, half a herring, and a little piece of bread. Whether this would stay the cravings of a young appetite or not, there was no more to be had. For my dinner I had a pint of pot liquor, and the skin off of the pork. I must say as the colored people say at the south, when singing to cheer their hearts while under the burning sun, and the crack of the whip, remembering what is placed before them every day for food–“My old master is a hard-hearted man; he eats the meat, and gives poor nigger bones.” (8)

The recipe is simple.  Clean your greens well, removing bugs, dirt or any other debris.  Have a pot of wild or yellow onions and one or two quarts of water boiling with bacon or salt pork.  Some people added a crushed hot pepper to their greens (especially turnip or collard greens) or a splash of apple cider vinegar.  Each traditional green has it’s own unique special requirements:

Lamb’s Quarters: (Chenopodium album)

The young fresh leaves and seeds of lamb’s quarter’s or “pigweed” are edible.  Considered “weeds” by many, lamb’s quarters were a Godsend to enslaved Blacks.  Charles Ball remembered an enslaved family whose only dinner was a pot of boiled lamb’s quarters.  The ideal edible lamb’s quarters are less than a foot tall, and the young leaves are the best.

You can boil them or fry them up with wild onions, salt and vinegar.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

Pokeweed or pork salad was popularly eating in the 19th century.  Many African American families, and families of Appalachian origin know this vegetable for its rich taste and long-suffering cooking method.  Because poke is poisonous, only the young tender shoots are edible.  Even then they must be boiled twice for ten minutes in several changes of water before they are fried in bacon grease or added to domestic greens to flavor the pot.  When you pick poke, there should be no traces of red in the leaves or stems, and the plant should not be taller than 6 or 8 inches.

Domestic Greens

Turnip greens, collards, mustard greens, and cabbages are prepared in the traditional way.  The salt pork or smoked turkey  and onion makes a stock in about 15-20 minutes.  The chopped greens are added and cooked down for 15-30 minutes to an hour or two depending on how Southern you are.

Meet Edward Booker, Aged 112


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Name: Edward Booker

Relation: Great-Great-Grandfather of Michael W. Twitty through his paternal grandmother, Eloise Booker

Born: 1839

Died: 1953

Where:  Prince Edward County, Virginia around the town of Prospect.

Occupation: Former enslaved indivdual on the Booker tobacco plantation, Freedman and landowner, and tobacco farmer

Michael's Great-Great GrandfatherI need help telling his story–and finding out more about him and his life—please consider making a contribution to our Indiegogo Campaign:

From the Family History Files: Appomattox, April 9, 1865

On April 9, 1865, in Appomattox, Virginia my great-great Grandfather Elijah Mitchell was standing with his brother when he witnessed the surrender of Lee to Grant…and this is how he found out that he was free…as copied from a family history file left to my Father:

“Appomattox County is a historical place in the commonwealth of Virginia.  This is the place where General Lee surrendured to General Grant in 1865.  Grandpa Elijah was a house slave and his brother, was a field slave.  Grandpa at the age of 16 stood by the side of the road and saw the two generals come out of the McClean House and read the papers stating the end of the war.  Grandpa never forgot this moment because he and his brother knew that at last they were free and everybody was free.  They fell into each other’s arms and wept.  Grandpa’s former master later gave them 30 acres of land and this is recorded i the records at Appomattox County, Virginia….”

4.  PERSPECTIVE VIEW OF SOUTH (REAR) AND EAST SIDE - McLean House, Appomattox, Appomattox County, VA

We are Featured on the CNN Food Blog: Eatocracy


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Great Feature over at Eatocracy Please check it out and share it.  And remember only 6 days left to help donate to the Cooking Gene Projectand there are many great gifts still left to be claimed. Enjoy 🙂 AND SHARE AND SHARE AND SHARE AND SHARE—- 6 days until our campaign ends–even if you can’t give a cent—SHARE SHARE SHARE SHARE Thank you!


We made Ebony.Com for the Cooking Gene :)



Here goes the link:

We are really going for the gusto on the Southern DIscomfort Tour. We have about 18 days left so we really need your support and 5-10-18-36 bucks really helps us out if not more. We can’t get on the road for less than our goal so we are humbly asking for your support so we can bring this story to a mass audience. We love you!

We will be back after the first two days of Passover!



So its really hard to run a fundraising campaign and blog at the same time!

We will be back full force on Monday.  We are going to be posting every day through the remaining month of our Campaign.  We have so many stories to tell, and now that the route is more concrete, we have more to say about how all of this will look in the end.  We appreciate your patience and your questions and emails.  G-d bless!

Thank You, Nancie!


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We are at day 40 leading to May 6th–the final day of our campaign for The Cooking Gene.  

I am sure a lot of people want the food pics and the recipes now, and the how to on this project.  Unfortunately I have to be tentative about that until we know we will be able to do this financially.

I have been praying and praying and working my butt off with my friend Joey to make this Tour happen.  We’re juggling so much that its exhausting and tiring.  

And every once in a while, you get a day like this.

I think I knew about Nancie McDermott in passing but when I looked at my email this morning….I just couldn’t believe my eyes.  If you don’t know Nancie–take a gander–she has a website and also has a wordpress blog–so we’re blog cousins.  (We are planning on making her Southern Pies and Southern Cakes part of our guidebooks for the Tour!  You can get them at Amazon and B/N…) 

Today we thank Nancie for our first 500 dollar contribution for The Cooking Gene.  

Nancie–if you’re reading this and I hope you are—I broke down and cried and I started praying on the spot.  This project is about finding family long gone and creating family anew.  Your work is so extensive and wonderful, but for you to say this is worth investing in and planting the seeds for is really humbling and I cannot thank you enough on behalf of my family, my Ancestors, and all the folks in Southern history–black, red and white–and more–who lived and died so you and I could tell the story through our writing, cooking, and visions for what Southern food can be and should be.

So Nancie–G-d bless you from your new African American/Jewish brother 🙂

Peace to your house and may the blessings keep flowing!


If you want to follow Nancie’s example and donate to our project–please do.  We have donation packages from 5 -1,000 dollars.  We need you–40 days and this project closes.  Nothing is too small, and we encourage each and every reader to spread the word about this blog as well as the Indiegogo page.  Need a link?  Here goes:

Don’t assume that someone else will come through–Nancie didn’t.  Lots of people want a part of this project but its going to take 5 here, 10 there, 18, 36, 50, 100, 500, 1,000 here and there to make this happen.  We are counting on you and we need you.  We want to help others through our work and we can’t do that unless we’re funded.  So supporters keep spreading the word and let’s keep the momentum up 🙂 


The Ground on Which I Cook: The Cooking Gene–an Appeal

The Grounds on Which I Cook: What The Cooking Gene Project Means For the Past and Future of American Food

In 1996, one of my intellectual heroes, August Wilson delivered a pointed, powerful and inspiring speech called, “The Ground On Which I Stand,” in which he challenged critic Robert Brustein on his views on diversity and the theater. In that time, the heat of multiculturalism vs. the Canon war was hotter than ever before and August Wilson was responding to the idea that the multicultural artist had to fit the canon, rather than the canon stretching to accommodate the full range of experiences brought to the art by the artist. This essay, which I hope will become the signature expression of my vision for this project, is partially based on the ideas and concepts of August Wilson’s vision not only in his prized speech, but also in his art, and the art of others I admire–across diverse fields of expression and inquiry so that my message translates into the hearts and minds of all who read this blog and see the Campaign page asking, “But, what does this mean for our food future?” Some will ask, “Knowing the past is nice, but how will changing our perspective about it change us?” Others still will note, “Why do we need this now?”

Future, past and present. In the post-post-modern mind these worlds are more fraught with meaning than ever before. What I am asking of my donors, of scholars, of community elders, of students, of farmers, of chefs and of African American and Southern communities of all colors and backgrounds is to move beyond these categories and to embrace the complexity of acknowledging that these divisions of time and arbitrary notions of space are now, for us, meaningless. I welcome you to the Crossroads, the signature symbol of West and Central African spirituality, transcendent of any one belief system or even the imposition of other religious or cultural expressions. The Crossroads symbol is the cross of the sun, of the moon, of nature’s cycles and movements, including the journey of the human in and out of conscious existence. Standing in the middle of the Crossroads symbol we apprehend the future, past and present as ever-occuring states of being, mind and purpose. What we say and believe about the past will indeed affect our future, and how we progress towards that future is the state we call “now,” and if we are honest with ourselves and can embrace our own mortality—we will be the past and will pass on this ever wheeling cycle, most ironically perhaps to the generations of eaters to come.

Several hundred years ago a confluence of events led my ancestors—African, European and Native American to the path that led to me–and the majority of those people who define themselves today as “African-American.” It is baffling to think that people who never dreamed any other reality other than the one they had inherited would be present for a cultural and culinary collision that is ever moving and going even as technology in all its wonder and terror make this story even more complex. This story begins with the human desire for the rarest of natural taste experiences–sweetness—and sugar–in its green and grass form came to the forefront to answer this craving. Food is not an afterthought in the story of race–and slavery–and the origin of what it means to be “American,” it is the founding element in our story. It is seldom acknowledged that in the history of humanity’s relationship with slavery and subjugation, no people have transformed the food habits, tastes and relationship with the table as Africans did in the Americas. We are—all of us Southerners–the products of a strange and painful, joyous and regretless cuisine that is the confluence of mothers and men speaking over 100 languages haggling over the means to express a common culinary love in the middle of a heartbreaking and irrevocable exile.

The Foodie Faith celebrates the peasant and the rustic. It savors locality and seasonality, sustainability and sourcing. Food is as political as it can be delicious. We have been challenged to eat the guts and game that have lost ground to prime cuts. We are taken out into Central Park to gather naturally occurring delicacies. We are told that a homegrown garden is a matter of power, revolutionary and remarkable in the age of chains and corporations. There is nothing in the current contemporary rhetoric about food that the African American Table has not had to address in its nearly five hundred year existence. As the possessors of a culinary history alternative to the prevailing narrative, as survivors and sustainers, you would think that our presence and our voices would be inviolable and authoritative, and yet we are seldom key players in defining our role in that history and determining the destiny of our unique table and its culinary thumbprints on the story of American food to come.

Like Mr. Wilson before me, the ground on which I stand, is the “self-defining ground of the slave quarter.” I say without reservation that my own mission, which I hope you will share with me as a matter of passion and purpose, is to give honor to those Ancestors of the American culinary tradition who were in chains–physical and metaphorical. I cannot impose false delight on the way I imagine the past because it is inappropriate when one considers the intense and horrific degradation encountered by James Booker, Washington Twitty, Hattie Bellamy, Arrye Todd, Mary Dunn and Henry Hancock–only a few of my connection to the four million men and women of African descent held in bondage on the eve of the Civil War. They had no idea that they were the might and muscle behind ⅔ of America’s valued exports. I make my case for their inclusion and a new vision of this past for the sake of past, future and present standing on the ground where it all began–where I in essence, became an American centuries ago.

The plantations of the Deep South, specific to where my family originated are therefore the necessary place where this Project must begin even as it winds its way across the South to those places I have defined as scenes of culinary memory where it meets the civilization of American slavery. We have tired of the moniker, “the slaves.” We have tired of notions that our cooking can be summed up in sweep rather than substance..that 200 or 250 pages can do justice to several hundred years of culinary engagement. We have tired of the concept that our food was just about “make do,” or that the “Master” set our table. Themes of retroactive irresponsibility, physical over intellectual prowess, of bare bones simplicity and artlessness have plagued the gaze of society into African American culture, and I painfully confess these have infected the view of African American food as well, especially the foodways and traditions of the enslaved.
What these ideas have led to is a lack of respect and an ongoing ignorance of what our forefathers and foremothers truly brought to the table. We seldom hear of them as pioneers. What do we make of the first African to relate the fruit of the ebony tree to that of the American persimmon? What does it mean that an African variety of rice, three millenia old, is still present in the marshes of South Carolina? How do we list the crops, animals, sea life, wild plants, fungi and other edibles and their gastronomic genealogy in the Afro-Atlantic world? How we experience the most fundamental element of food–through its ingredients— is by the stories of individual lives in the saga of the Peculiar Institution.


For those who think they have indeed mastered that part of the equation, it should be understood that African American food is more than that…it is the edible scripture of the African (American, Diaspora, Atlantic) aesthetic. In our edible jazz, our culinary answer to all other forms and modes of communication of spirit, law, soul, vision and movement known to our branch of the human family. We look in envy as the foodways and culinary traditions of others are designated matters of World Heritage and others get to, rightfully, legislate the use of terms, ideas, indigenous knowledge in the “branding” of foods, drinks and terroir, and yet we are still somehow caught in the act of demanding our right to similar language, legal protections, and to appellations and monikers like “hand-crafted,” “artisan,” “local,” and “slow,” to describe our tradition.


Do you know the songs to sing to beat rice or to cook a possum? Do you know the tree of words that had be redacted to create a language sufficient enough to exchange recipes among all those different African women? What is the sound the food should make? What is the way it should smell when its done? What does it look like? What happens when a Egba Yoruba runaway confronts food life in a Red Stick village among the Muskogee in Georgia? What glands must one take out to prevent the meat from being full of stink? When is a poke leaf too venomous to eat?


The people who have captivated my mind since I was younger believed in a celestial dance told in colors of life almost imaginable to us. Their diet had its own systems of signs, religious omens and folk beliefs. The white chicken cut for the funeral meal, slaughtered at the doorway where the souls of the deceased walks out into eternity; the guinea fowl that stood for the spirit of smallpox, the frizzled head chicken who rooted out conjure and trickery buried in the red clay…This is the man who pulled out the coon penis bone and strung it around his neck. These are the just samples of an entire way of looking at food that bridged African memory and American necessity into one experience.

When people ask me why I drive myself into the cotton, tobacco, rice and cane fields, I inform them that there is no way to know what food meant to an enslaved man or woman unless you’ve worked a day taken from the pages of slavery. Our ancestors took pride in garden production, in a good hunt, in a good catch, in a fat hog or fine chicken or guinea. They lived with separate rhythms than those that would come to define their lives in Reconstruction and beyond…..and separate notions of food than those enjoyed even by those who were their grandchildren. It is this indigenous knowledge path–this distinct and incomparable blending of worlds—African and Atlantic and American—that drives me into the Old South looking for the experiences and sacred acts that will allow us all to reclaim an authentic soul-portrait of Southern cuisine’s sidelined mothers and fathers.

It is impossible to understand these Ancestors without looking to West and Central, and sometimes South-eastern Africa. It is equally impossible not to look to Western Europe, Native America, and the Afro-Caribbean and all of the exchanges and interpenetrations that occured across 500 years. We would do well to abandon the notion of “exchange,” and focus more on the little moments that bind one tradition to the next. In this we can better hope to understand our own world where fusion can occur at any moment in any culinary setting just because a person has technological devices that allows for instantaneous culinary mongrelry.


If someone truly wants to understand the landscape of those foods, ingredients and history of early African America they must understand it within the contextual ethos in which African American cuisine was created….Read memory….exile…coercion, negotiation, migration, oppression, resistance and adaptation–the tool box of strategies for the larger slavery-civilization were as equally equipped for food culture. My role as a culinary genealogist is to trace our ingredients, dishes, culinary figures and moments back in time to these cultural collisions and measure the information against the battery of strategies used to keep the body alive and the spirit free during American slavery.

American food culture today is an intellectual and contested gustatory landscape in search of values, new direction and its own indigenous sense of rightness and self-worth. It is a culture looking towards American ecology, seasons and opportunities for new ways to invigorate and color the American palette. It is concerned with health, sustainability, local economies, environmental integrity and social justice. It is a cuIinary inquiry, a creative journey in search of ancestors, precedent, and novel ways to explore tradition while surging forward. We could not ask for a better season to harvest the fruits of our common food Ancestors–the cooks of kitchens high and low in the Old and Deep South. It is these men and women who I hope to champion, elevate, make monument to and commemorate–not just because the past needs us, but because we need the past, and the future needs us now.

I am asking you to send me back to my culinary roots. I am asking you to send me back to the cotton fields, rice fields, tobacco fields, sugarcane fields, for the sake of seeking both culinary and racial redemption and reconcilliation. I believe food can and should be the starting place for a meaningful and healing dialogue between the South’s pillar cultures, and yet it is beyond the story of “red, white and black,”; it is a story that opens its arms to the Southerners from East Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, African immigrants, and Latin America. We are bound, inextricably through a food culture and the lore behind it, which was bought and paid for with the blood and sweat of the enslaved. None of us, not even their descendants are exempt from saying we owe a fantastic cultural debt to those who came before us. “We must go back and retrieve,” as the Akan proverbs of Ghana state, Sankofa, “to move forward and make things anew.” When we embrace this new narrative, get back to the source of part of the Southern aesthetic.

It is critical that we celebrate, honor and perpetuate the genius of the cooks in kitchens high and low, because with them lies the secret to Southern cuisine. They were more than contributors, they were innovators and perhaps most importantly, melders of three distinct approaches to food covering a diversity of food voices. I want to put a face to this history, to embrace and own the past–with all of its pain and promise so that future generations can know and understand that the smile of Rastus, Ben and Jemima are lies, and that the some 6.5 million enslaved people of African descent known to mainland North America from colonial times to the Civil War had an impact far out of proportion to their numbers, a contribution that must not remain vague, but fully fleshed and formed into something cohesive that we can proudly call, a legacy.

I have no shame in saying that the legacy of slavery itself has been painful and enduring in my own life and journey to this moment. Although political and academic pundits dare we historically concious people of color to “blame it on slavery,” I own the fact that my great-great-great grandfather, a white man, could go to the University of Georgia at Athens; but the path of his descendants were not so easy to obtain the same things that the institution of slavery guaranteed him; namely an education, a home, land, propery, and a financial inheritance. While others are able to use status, privilege, access and personal advantage to write, travel, learn and critique the culinary landscape, I approach the table on my knees, eager to stand and participate in the feast. This project, funded by an interested public amounts to a vote of confidence on the part of my donors–not only that such a project should come to light, but that someone like me should be able to undertake it. It would be irresponsible of me to say that anyone “owed,” my team and I their donation; but it would be equally irresponsible to pretend as though the playing field is even, equal, or advantageous to people of color in the field of food writing and historical culinary inquiry, or the definition and academic study of Southern history and culture.
This story, this journey is partly about discovering my roots in the white South. That I am the descendant of Southern white planters as well as enslaved people means that both sides of the table are my heritage. What do you do with that? How do you comprehend that heritage through food? Who does that make me?

I encountered a woman at a professional conference who suggested that I research her husband’s family and their wagon of slaves and talk about how “the slaves,” cooked for them; and that I should write it like, “The Help.” I have received a sea of pursed lips and eyes of denial in reaction to the idea that I am focusing the lens of history on my family. I have been at historic plantations and been told that “the Master made sure that his slaves knew how to grow their own gardens and raise their own crops, so they would be prepared for freedom.” I have been the black guy in the funny clothes at a historical site told to limit my historical facts to just saying, “I’m the cook, Sir and Madam….” I have seen people ask more about the wallpaper and windows of a Southern mansion and nothing about the people who likely built it or sustained the life of the people within. I have seen my people reduced to a crude painting on a wall, or a fleeting memory of faithful slave wallowing in happy poverty while the slaveholder got to embrace the American dream. I have been told, “Who would really care about your family’s story?” I don’t want to believe that those voices are representative, but they are certainly frightening because they speak to the ongoing obfuscation and amnesia regarding the enslaved and their place in Southern civilization.

I want to give you faces and names and stories you will never forget. I want children of all colors to work together so that the seeds are planted for death of ignorance. I want to give you recipes and new ingredients and heirloom seeds. I want to give my community access to a voice that can reach the larger world and speak to the crushing economic pain that our farmers and fishermen, food producers and restauranteurs feel in a time of uncertainty and doubt. I want to connect my story to the stories of the people who bear my names and the people who gave us those names. I want my family back, my blood family, my culinary family, my Southern family, but most of all I hope this tour, fully funded by you, the spirit of love and respect for our mission, will turn us all into a family, an American family, informed by our complexity but confirmed in our faith that we have done our best to leave the future of American food in educated, tolerant, and creative culinary hands.

This is my dream, and I hope that in its execution will be fruits to bear that we can all enjoy. I seek the Old South and Africa of my forefathers and foremothers. I seek the love and support of Southerners of a thousand different shades of human. I want to see the land and know intimately the soil, sun, and water and all they produce. I seek the iron pots and wooden spoons, skillets, spiders, ovens and pits of the Ancestors. I seek the knowledge and faces of Susie Pate, Emma Brant, Adeline Twitty, and I seek the self-defining ground of the slave quarter, the ground on which August Wilson built his art, and the ground on which I wish to cook.